Kwambio, the Ukrainian factory successfully sells products printed on a 3D printer for the design industry and for the aerospace industry to Europe and the U.S. Now Ukrainians, together with European laboratories, are learning to print bones and organs on the printer.
In 2015, entrepreneurs from Odesa came up with a word that was not found on Google, namely “Kwambio”. That is how they launched a business project, which had to fundamentally change the principle of world trade. The company became Europe’s first factory for 3D printing of ceramics.
Today, Kwambio opens new horizons: Ukrainian entrepreneurs learn how to print bones and organs on a 3D printer. Delo.UA in cooperation with the Delegation of the European Union to Ukraine within the framework of the Business Together project talked with the co-founder of Kwambio Volodymyr Usov.
How did your idea transform, how did you come to the decision to open a 3D printing factory?
We actually had many stages. In general, it is important to make a lot of mistakes for startups. Few people immediately find their idea. There will always be attempts and mistakes. But it is important that mistakes are cheap for you. After the first failure, you need to make the next mistake as quickly as possible, and then you come to the right decision.
We first came up with the idea to create a platform, some AppStore, for 3D printing. It means that a desktop 3D printer, which can be found at people’s home, was connected to the platform. You could control the printer from an iPhone. You just need to select an object on your smartphone, and it is printed.
Then there was a 3D printing boom; everyone believed that today the printer could print Yoda’s plastic head, and tomorrow clothes or a computer. We thought it would be nice to be in line with the trend. We had a great business model, but the problem was that 3D printers printed Yoda’s plastic head and they kept printing it. They, in fact, printed 4 to 5 souvenirs made of plastic and that’s it.
We also wanted to print not only trinkets and souvenirs, but a whole range of objects that are needed for daily use.
Objects made from a variety of materials. I woke up, printed my breakfast and a fresh T-shirt.
Have you planned initially, which market will you target – the Ukrainian market or the markets of other certain countries?
Frankly speaking, I did not pay attention to such trifles. It seemed to me that our model changed the principle of world trade. Today, you have to produce something, then move it around the world and sell it. Our model provided for 100% prepaid demand.
We do not need to forecast demand; we would not have the situations where only 500,000 of the manufactured one million products were sold.
The object is purchased first, and only then it is produced. By the way, it does not need to be transported from Ukraine, for example, to China or the United States. That was the idea.
But now you have abandoned this model?
In addition to desktop 3D printers that print plastic products, there are also industrial printers that print metal and ceramic objects. One of the areas in which we wanted to work was design. There was a great demand for ceramics, but it turned out that there was no stable technology for ceramics 3D printing.
We only had one industrial 3D printer. We found the technology of inkjet printing, but it turned out that it did not work with ceramics, but only with gypsum.
That is why we improved the printer itself, which now prints ceramics.
We print all products in Odesa and deliver to other countries by courier services. Now we have 10 printers at our production facility.
Are designers your main customer now?
This is the largest area: about 90% of our revenues are now provided by the design industry. We print, for example, different accessories for the interior.
For the designers themselves – is it just a “shtick” that their products are printed on a 3D printer, or does this kind of production give them any advantages?
The main advantage for them is that it can be quickly and inexpensively printed on a 3D printer. For example, I want to print a cup. With the traditional approach, I need to set up production somewhere in China, order a batch of at least 100,000 pieces, invest in it and then invest in logistics. At the same time, there is a risk that my cups will not be purchased.
With our help, everything is simpler. A designer publishes a model of its cup on its website, they buy it, we print it in a few hours, and the designer delivers it to the client.
You can start a business without investment; you do not need to have warehouses.
Many designers cannot create their brands. They work “under umbrellas” of some brands and cannot realize their idea of some crazy cup, because this brand does not like the idea. We do a very low threshold of entering the business; we allow the designer producing its cup for $20, and the market is already checking whether this product is needed.
Are your customers individual designers?
Either individual designers or small niche galleries, studios or museums. Those ordering small batches of products, in particular from 5-10 to 50. 3D printing cannot work for large or even mass production. After all, in traditional production, the larger the batch, the cheaper the manufacture of one product. But in 3D printing, both the first and the millionth product will cost the same.
What markets do you work with?
We sell about 80% of our products to the United States. Europe is our second market, it holds about 20%, of which 5% of all orders for printing products belong to Ukraine. The main sales in Europe are in Scandinavia. These, in particular, are the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark as well as France, Great Britain and Spain.
Do you need any permits for Europe?
Everything is very simple with standards in the innovative business, they are basically not developed. But there are requirements that the product should be environmentally friendly, not harmful to the environment. And we do not use any chemicals.
For products made of ceramics no license is needed, you just need not to violate.
But, in addition to products, we are also preparing to supply printers with our own technology to Poland and the U.S. (for General Electric – ed.). Certification is needed for printers primarily for the materials that printers use when printing. It was necessary to comply with the standard environmental regulations. Now we have 13 orders for the supply of printers to different countries.
Are there any duties for your ceramics in Europe?
It all depends on the cost of a parcel. If it is below EUR 150, then you do not need to pay anything, and if exceeds this sum, there is a duty and additional papers are required.
You say that the powders for printing products must be environmentally friendly. What do they consist of?
The composition includes clay, a little sugar, a little glass and sand. The main thing is to mix everything in the right proportions. By the way, when we first started, our engineer mixed the powder, and from the first attempt we managed to print a ceramic product. But we mixed approximately and failed to write down the formula.
For a year and a half we tried to find the right ratio and the right proportions.
Did it ever happen that the printed products turned out to be defective, did not match the models?
At first, about 90% of the printed products were defective. After that, the percentage decreased up to 70-80%. Now we reached the mark of 5% defected products. It took two years. Since you cannot use the material again, because the products are painted, we dispose of all the products of inappropriate quality. We wanted to see only high-quality products leaving the doors of the factory.
This in fact should be a very high margin, to have profit with 90% of defected products?
There was no profit. But there must be a high margin in the innovation business. If it is at least 100 or 200%, it makes sense to be engaged in a project. Kwambio is a high-margin business. We are the organizer of the full cycle of production; we produce the material on our own; we have our own technology and production.
How many products do you manufacture per month and do you plan to expand?
We are actually working at the maximum – we make about 1,000 products per month.
We do not plan to grow in terms of production; we do not want to be a big factory.
We want to sell printers, technology and powders developed by us to partners in different countries. The first printers will be delivered parallel to Poland and the United States for General Electric.
Did you attract investments from venture investors and accelerators? What is the total amount of such investments?
About $ 2 million. We have about 10 different investors. These are “angel” investors, individuals, legal entities, funds from the United States and Ukraine. This, by the way, is good to be combined, when there are investors from different regions, they will promote your product on different markets. Each of the investors owns a stake in the company.
Have you already returned the invested money?
We are close to being called a successful business. But not yet. We have not returned all investments. Now we are only at a level where our revenues are almost at the level of expenses.
Besides design, in what other areas do you work? Where do you use 3D printing?
We print complex objects for aerospace. These are cartridges for turbines, blades, moulds for casting parts. To produce these parts manually, you need a week, and on a 3D printer – three hours. These are the details of a complex form, because our technology here also works well.
The third area is health care. We are talking about bioprinting, we are working on 3D printing of bone implants. This is a promising area for us. After all, most complex fractures do not grow together; serious injuries in case of accidents and military operations lead to limb amputation. One can print implants of the ideal shape on a 3D printer, half of the complex cases can be successfully completed, and millions of people will live normally.
Which are is the most interesting for you personally?
It seems to me that the greatest prospects are in health care.
I want to create not only a technology for printing bones and bone implants. But also want to create the technology of 3D printing of biological structures, organs, vessels and tissues.
How did you come up with the idea of printing bones on a 3D printer?
If you think about something for a lot of time, then the ideas come. We use powders for 3D printing. I saw on TV that bones are moulded from bone chips, and I thought, why they should be moulded if I can print them. Our bones consist of calcium phosphate, which is a powder that can be bought at a pharmacy. We tried to print something from it, it worked.
What is the current stage of 3D printing of bones?
Now, we are the stage of research and testing. They were interested in our idea at two laboratories, in particular in Sweden and Switzerland. We send them our material, they test it and some scientist will write a scientific paper on this topic. Then we will get certification and become the first who prints bone implants on a 3D printer.
How long does it take? About 10 years?
About a year and a half. It is clear that it is much more difficult to print bones than cups. It is necessary to get a huge number of permits, pass testing and certification.
When we are ready, I will be the first person to experience our bone implant.
Is it difficult for me to imagine that 3D printing is introduced in Ukraine?
And I do imagine it. It is economically feasible’ private clinics will begin to implement it. We even talked with Ukrainian clinics. For example, with the Odrex clinic, which is located in Odesa, and with the ilaya clinic in Kyiv.
And as for the 3D printing of organs, in your opinion, it the prospect of how many years?
Organ transplantation is the redistribution of a limited resource. In the United States, the number of those awaiting transplantation is about 100 thousand people, in the world – millions of people. I think that within 10 years we will learn how to print the main organs, namely the kidneys and heart.
What do you think, will be the first that can be printed on a 3D printer, maybe the vessels?
It seems to me that organs will be the first.
By the way, it will be easier to print a heart on a 3D printer than, for example, kidneys.
Heart is a simple organ, with a simple function, it pumps blood. The kidneys and liver are more complex, chemical reactions take place there.
In general, I see the situation as follows: a 3D atlas of the human body is created together with all the bones and all the organs. Some 3D database. For example, I broke a hand in Texas, a Texas clinic accessed my database, found the right bone and printed it. By the way, we discussed this idea with NASA, it is interesting to them for the International Space Station.
Are you already working on materials to be used to print organs?
Let’s take a heart. Its frame is printed using a special gel, and then stem cells are applied to it. The cells are taken from you, and the frame is printed on the printer, and the cells begin to live.
We have already begun to cooperate with the laboratory of Lund University in Sweden. It has groundwork in bioprinting of organs. I think that in a year we will be able to show the current results.
The original article was published on Delo.ua